Friday, August 12, 2011

Old Khottabych (Lenfilm, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I had squeezed in on Monday night after the organ concert in Balboa Park turned out to be quite good, a little gem in its own way: a 1958 Soviet film called Starik Khottabych — “Old Khottabych” — though its official English-language release was titled The Flying Carpet. (We were watching an original Russian-language print with English subtitles.) It’s based on a novel by Lazar Lagin that’s supposedly a classic of Russian literature for children — lists Lagin as the original author but doesn’t say who adapted his story and wrote the screenplay (the “Kinoblog: A survey of Central and Eastern European Cinema” page on identifies Lagin as the screenwriter as well as the author of the source novel) — and it’s basically an offtake of the Aladdin legend in which a blond-haired and slightly but still safely rambunctious Russian kid named Volka (Alyosha Litvinov) finds a magic lamp, opens it and lets out a genie with the almost impossible handle Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khottab (Nikolai Volkov).

Volka and his friend, Zhenia (Gennadi Khudyakov), manage to go on a spectacular (at least as spectacular as the filmmakers could make it on their budget) journey to the Middle East and/or India — it’s not all that clear whether they thought they were one and the same — and then they crash a circus, where the genie shows up the contrivances of the stage “magician” and then starts doing real magic tricks that the audience finds more entertaining. One interesting quirk in the story is that both Volka and Zhenia — and Gogha (Lev Kovalchuk), who bullies Volka — are all members of the Pioneers, the young Communist group that was midway in ideological seriousness between the Boy Scouts and the Hitler Youth. The Pioneers are, not surprisingly, depicted totally sympathetically here — the genie even says he wants to be a Pioneer himself even though he’s over 2,000 years old and is played by a character actor who is obviously on the dark side of middle age (he was born in 1900 so he was 58 when he made this film, and if anything the makeup job on him makes him look even older!). The film isn’t much of a story — it’s clearly aimed at an audience of people Volka’s age — but it’s a real charmer, and it’s helped a great deal by being filmed in Agfacolor (though by then the Soviets, who had stolen the Agfacolor process from Nazi Germany and claimed it as war booty, were by then calling it “Sovcolor”), and the delicacy and painterly beauty of the colors serve this story in a way the principal processes then available in the West, Technicolor and Eastmancolor, would not have.

Incidentally, according to, Nikolai Volkov lived until 1985 and must have been working until the end, because his last three films weren’t released until after he died; while his comic schtick gets a bit wearing towards the end (I guess this is where that Borscht Belt strain of Jewish humor — much of it from Jewish families who had emigrated from Russia to the U.S. to flee the pogroms — came from!), he’s mostly quite charming (as is the whole movie), endearing and funny in a low-brow but not intelligence-insulting way. The best scene — at least for me — was shortly after the genie first appears, when he offers to help coach Volka on a geography test, and gives him answers reflecting the state of human knowledge 2,000 years previously, when the genie was first “bottled” — and Volka repeats everything the genie tells him, which means that he’s arguing in all seriousness that the earth is a flat, round disc bounded by a limitless ocean, and it can’t be a ball because then the water would fall off. Naturally, he not only flunks the test, he’s ridiculed in front of the whole class and Gogha accuses him of sabotaging the test deliberately!